My 6 year old son refuses to eat anything but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, carby snacks and anything sweet – no veggies, no meat, no cheese, no pasta, etc. His pediatrician says his weight is fine, and she suggested a vitamin and mineral supplement shake, which my son actually likes because it’s chocolate. When I was a kid, I ate what was on the table for dinner, or I didn’t eat anything. Why doesn’t that approach work with my kid? The harsher I get, the more disobedient he gets. Even when I am super kind to him, nothing changes. Every day is a struggle, and there is always a fight with tears…sometimes for both of us. I am at my wits end because he’s not eating and we can’t take him anywhere. My neighbor suggested therapy but should I have to take my son to therapy to eat a balanced diet? Your help is appreciated.
It seems to me that you are caught in a control battle with your son, and your son is winning the battle. In my opinion, the first thing I think you need to do is to agree with your son that you will no longer be battling him on the topic of food. Instead, you and your son are going to agree on an action plan to solve the problem. The first step in your action plan will be to replace the escalation of nudging, coaxing, prodding, arguing and fighting about food with agreed upon meals each day.
The next step in your action plan will be to sit down with your son to put together a list of foods that he likes, foods that he might like (or might be willing to try) and foods that he does not like. Perhaps you could categorize the foods as “yes foods,” “maybe foods” and “no foods.” Then for each meal, allow your son to have a small amount of one food that he likes, and serve a couple of maybe foods on his plate. If he chooses not to eat much, that is his choice. Remember no more nudging, coaxing, prodding, arguing or fighting about it. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, you will also want to decide on a time for when the meal is over and when the kitchen is closed.
I would then implement a no snack policy in between meals for your son. If he is filling up on Goldfish and candy after school, he probably will not have much of an appetite for dinner. By not snacking at all, your son will be hungrier at mealtime, and thus, he will be more likely to try the maybe foods he previously selected.
Whether your son is at a friend’s house, at school, or at a restaurant, you will want to keep him consistent with the meal plan. You will also want to reassess the maybe food list each day, and over time, your son’s list of maybe foods should grow. You could even bring your son grocery shopping with you to discuss his maybe foods. Young children are visual, and at 6, seeing the foods he is considering could be helpful. You could also let your son know that you will reintroduce healthy snacks into his day when he and you agree on what those snacks will be (e.g., fruit). And of course, continue to follow your son’s pediatrician’s recommendation for the food shake supplement.
Keep in mind that your son will probably not care very much for the action plan that I am offering here because it is going to challenge him to change and change is usually difficult. In fact, he might even fight you over the plan; things could seem to get worse before they get better, but that is okay. Stay the course and with time, and by being reasonable, consistent, loving and patient, your son’s picky eating should improve.
If, however, your son’s picky eating does not improve within a reasonable period of time (say a month or two), or if you notice that he is beginning to struggle in other ways or in other areas, you might want to consider seeing a child psychologist. While picky eating is not that unusual in early childhood, underlying anxiety may be what’s driving your son’s need to over control his food choices. Problematic anxiety with food in early childhood can sometimes work itself out with exposure and time, but sometimes it requires the additional attention of a mental health professional.
Michael Oberschneider “Dr. Mike” is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological Services, a private mental health clinic comprised of 12 MD and PhD level mental health clinicians. Go to www.Ashburnpsych.com or call 703 723-2999 to learn more.